Turning Presidents Into Pharaohs

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tags: President Library



Benjamin Hufbauer, a professor at the University of Louisville, is the author of the book "Presidential Temples."

It’s that time again. Two years after George W. Bush dedicated his $500-million Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, President Obama reportedly plans to announce, with considerable fanfare, the site of his own (likely even more expensive) library. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves: Why do all American presidents now get to create these colossal temples of spin dedicated to themselves that, although mostly built with privately-raised money, are largely run by the federal government? Presidential libraries are in some ways like Stephen Colbert’s old show—often surreal in their megalomaniacal self-promotion—but unlike the Colbert Report there’s no irony at these shrines. At the April 24, 2013 dedication of his library, George W. Bush declared that “this beautiful building has my name above the door, but it belongs to you.”  Yet should we be grateful?

The Bush library’s opening was, of course, attended by every living ex-president and former first lady (Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barbara and George Bush, Sr.), as well as President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. When President Clinton spoke, he pricked Bush’s bubble by saying that the Bush Library was just “the latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history.”

Parallels from the ancient world came to mind, like the pyramids and temples of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt that told glorified versions of their reigns, as well as the Roman Empire’s Imperial Cult, which made most emperors gods for political worship. Roman emperors could have an exaggerated list of “things achieved” engraved in stone, written with the help of their advisors. These ancient examples are prequels to the self-promoting museums in presidential libraries, which are largely curated by the former presidents themselves. The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin has, as Ada Louis Huxtable wrote, "a Pharaonic air of permanence" that "puts Mr. Johnson in the same class as some Popes and Kings who were equally receptive clients for architects with equally large ideas." 

For many, presidential libraries are just a fact of American political life, but what are their deeper meanings? For instance, can the architecture of a presidential library reveal the personality of a president? And how have presidential libraries been connected to the use and abuse of history? Digging deeper, the larger issue for almost all presidential libraries is what historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called “the imperial presidency.”

Presidential libraries don’t just commemorate individual presidents, they also promote an expansive view of presidential power—while usually ignoring excesses, mistakes, and abuses. It’s not a coincidence that the federal presidential library was invented by Franklin Roosevelt, identified by Schlesinger as the first modern “imperial president.” ...




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